Friday, March 12, 2010

My two bucks on the Great Helmet Debate

First off, my thoughts and prayers are with Courtney King-Dye and her family -- may she make a quick and complete recovery.

Second, I haven't wanted to weigh in "officially" on this debate, just because ... well, for me, there isn't a debate. I recognize that there is one in the greater horse world, though -- or at least there are a variety of choices made by a variety of people out there.

I learned to ride at lesson-type barns, first in Texas at a hunter-jumper barn, then in California at a pony farm and Pony Club, then on and on from there. In every situation I ever rode in, helmets were mandatory, especially for people under 18. So I can't really remember ever riding without a helmet. I've never seen a picture of myself on a horse without a helmet, either. So my background is different from some people's -- I know there are people out there who didn't grow up wearing a helmet. Also, my discipline (if I can call it that at my level) is three-day-eventing, which is big-Big-BIG on safety gear. So that's my background.

When I bought Reveille, one of the first things I did, even before she'd been delivered to me, was go out and buy a new helmet. I figured that I was buying a two-year-old and that there were inevitably going to be some falls, so I should probably be absolutely sure that my helmet was up to taking those falls.

And boy ... did I ever take those falls. Two in particular actually tested my helmet. One wasn't terrible, but I did crack the brim of the Tipperary helmet I had bought when I got Rev. (And my left pinky finger, but that wasn't under my helmet.) I should have replaced it then, but I didn't. Shame on me.

The second fall was much more destructive. The reason I bring it up is because as I was hanging out with the barn folks -- TW, TD, the working student, and the vet -- the subject of this fall came up. I told TD to tell the story, laughing that I wasn't really there and that the working student would get a better idea of it from TD's perspective.

What I didn't count on is how different TD's version of the story is than MINE. I knew I'd hit my head pretty hard when I fell, but I didn't realize exactly how hard I'd hit it.

In my version of the accident, everyone had just left the arena, I got bucked off, I hit my shoulder first (shattering my collarbone), hit my head hard, and then hit my hip hard. I lay for a second or two to sort of take stock of what had happened, managed to get up via my uninjured left side (still alone), Reveille followed me out of the arena, I saw C and told him to get TD, told him I thought I'd broken my collarbone, and then I went into the tack room/office, TD met me there, and the rest is pretty clear.

In TD's version of the accident, everyone had just left the arena, I got bucked off, I hit my shoulder first (shattering my collarbone), hit my head hard, and then hit my hip hard. TD had just finished lunch and was getting up to come back down the steps to the barn. N passed by and saw me laying on the ground, not moving, and she ran to get TD. TD, TW, and N came down, TD came into the arena as I was kind of coming to, asked me if I could get up. I managed to get up using my uninjured side and the wall, C came in and took Rev, we walked toward the tack room/office, and from there the stories match again. I suspect TD's is the correct version of the story.

Seriously, folks, this is weirding me out. A lot. All I can think about it from this vantage point is this:


I suspect that if I hadn't been wearing it, I suspect that the six weeks of recovery I had from the collarbone repair surgery would have been chump change. I suspect I'd have had a serious head injury.

That, plus the fact that it's a habit by now, just like wearing a seat belt in a car, is why I wear a helmet. That's why I think everyone should wear helmets, every time they get on a horse, regardless of their experience or expertise level.

However. I won't try to force my choice on any other adults. MT and TD don't wear helmets much, I think because they are usually confident in the horses they ride and because they find helmets uncomfortable. Fair enough -- they're both adults, they're professionals, and they know the risks. And TD does usually wear a helmet when she's jumping anyone but her own horses. MT wears a helmet when he's on a particularly crazy horse -- an Irish Sport Horse he had in last summer/fall comes immediately to mind; that horse could launch MT like a rock out of a trebuchet. ANYway ... as I said. They're adults and they're professionals.

I'd still be utterly devastated if either of them had any kind of head injury. They're each one-third of the support of the entire barn ... if you've ever seen a tripod or a three-legged stool with a short leg or a leg missing, you know what happens. Everything falls over.

I'd be horrified as well as devastated if it were my horse that caused the fall that led to the injury. Mortified. I do wish MT would wear a helmet when he rides Rev. Even though she doesn't really buck under saddle any more and hasn't in a long time, she's a horse. Things happen with horses.

At any rate ... my general rules are these:

* I wear a helmet at all times when riding. I've occasionally forgotten or registered my ballcap as something on my head - ergo helmet is already on, but when I realize I forgot, I get off immediately and put my helmet on.

* None of my peers (i.e., no one but MT or TD) are allowed to even sit on my horse without a helmet on.

* If I see a minor riding without a helmet, I'll ask them to put a helmet on or dismount. If the minor won't do it, I'll find someone in charge and see if I can press the issue. If the minor's parent or teacher doesn't care enough to make their kid/student wear a helmet ... well, I've done all I can. Tragedy lurks.

* I'll encourage any peers I ride with to wear a helmet when riding.

* But -- I won't be a helmet nazi. If an adult chooses to not wear a helmet or to not require their kid to wear a helmet, that's their choice ... even if I think it's a stupid one.

What I don't get is WHY anyone wouldn't choose to use all the protection they can get, knowing that all horses are unpredictable sometimes, that accidents happen, and that head injuries are notoriously tricky. Find a comfortable helmet; try lots of kinds on and find the one that's best. Protect your sexy sexy brain, as my boyfriend puts it. :) Your soft, gooey brain. You can't toughen up your brain or your head the way you can the rest of your body. You can't put your brain in a cast. Once is all it takes.

I really believe that high-level and/or high-visibility riders ought to be more conscientious than the rest of us, since they are role models, like it or not. They're teachers by doing. Even the natural horsemanship leaders ought to wear helmets -- awesome communication with the horse doesn't always mean you'll stay on or the horse won't get bit by a snake or stung by a wasp or something. I'd support the USDF and USEF if they were to make a rule saying that everyone at every level must wear a helmet whenever mounted. The idea that dressage riders get marked down for wearing helmets, as if it makes them afraid of their horses, is absolutely ridiculous. This is a tradition that really ought to be broken ... and that statement's coming from a rather traditional person. If anything, riders in helmets ought to be scored better for their responsibility.

People might think that helmets look dorky, but ... honestly, it's easy to overlook, and just consider this: how dorky do you think you'd look in a hospital bed, hooked up to breathing machines, drooling, with a vacant expression on your slack face?

Ounce of prevention, pound of cure. Wear your dang helmet.


  1. Well you know I am a helmet wearer myself. We can have cool helmet hair together! It does make me a little concerned that your trainer don't wear a helmet on your girl only because....

    When I was 14 years old I was riding my friends pony (with a helmet on that didn't fit very well). He was just a bit too much horse for me, but I had really wanted to ride with my friend. At one point he bolted and off I came and...well I don't remember very much about the next 5 hours of my life. I know that I was awake and conscious, but I couldn't tell you anything about what I did. At some point I started to become aware of myself again and was started to be in the hospital with someone elses clothes on and my Mom next to me. Accidents happen right?
    Well as soon as my insurance company found out that I was riding a friends pony and not my own they started to sue my friend! My parents literally had to HIRE A LAWER to STOP them from suing my friends parents over my mistake! It was NOT cheap to stop them from doing so. I am sure that your trainers understand the risks and what they are doing, but their insurance company might not be so kind. I am only telling you this so that you are aware of what could happen if something happened to them on your horse. I learned my lesson the hard way at 14 by causing my parents legal troubles.

  2. Yikes. I don't think they'd sue me; who knows what insurance companies would do? I know for sure that when I got hurt, I had to specify absolutely clearly that no one was at fault, it was an accident, and there was no one responsible. My insurance company didn't so much make lawsuit noises as ask me if they should, to which I responded NO NO NO NO and NO, of course. :)

    Good to know, though ... fortunately, my sister's a lawyer, and I know MT and TW have a lawyer in the family, so if it comes to it, we should have plenty of help getting the insurance company not to sue!